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Exam Preparation

Exams are stressful for almost everyone, even when it’s related to a subject they are passionate about. One of the biggest stress contributors is cramming before exams and many people fall for the trap over and over again. There are things you can do to break this cycle to achieve top grades. All the tips I found useful are suggested in the rest of this blog.

Many people find themselves cramming months of work right before their exams because they hadn’t spaced their revision in the time they had beforehand. They realise their mistake but fall into the endless cycle of leaving revision to the last minute and not doing as well as they hoped for in their exam. A big question posed is why?

People are often overwhelmed by the work they have lying ahead of them and underestimate their ability to get it done. Others find themselves months away from a major exam and overestimate their ability in getting it done later. Both of these mindsets lead to procrastination - a major antagonist many students have a hard time overcoming.

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How long should you spend studying?

Ideal revision time varies from person to person. What you want is a set time of study that allows you to retain the information you’ve learned. There is no major rush for wanting to learn everything in a day. Learning a lot in a day is considered cramming, which is a very ineffective method of revision, and most of the time, a result of procrastination.

Instead, doing a little everyday eventually compounds, and you save yourself from cramming. Doing a lot at once could also cause burnout; you don’t want to overstretch yourself since you won’t have the will to do more work the following day. I personally found doing 2 hours a day for 4 days a week got the job done, without making me tired. Having days off are okay!

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Pomodoro Technique

A technique used to help beat procrastination is the ‘Pomodoro Technique’. What it is essentially, is the periodic split between study and break. The technique as it is, consists of 25 minutes of deep distraction-free work followed by a 5 minute break, however, the concept is whats important, the time allocation of study and break can be altered to your liking. I find this technique quite appealing because I feel I am obliged to get work done during the 25 minutes, since I have actively set the time aside for deep work. Having said that, setting your study period too long or having breaks too short can cause burnout which again has us returning to this evil entity - procrastination. Therefore I suggest some tips to take upon yourself while using this method.

Firstly, adjust the time for the study/break split, a duration that doesn’t wear you down. Also, having a distraction free zone is ideal. Keeping your phone or any other form of distraction away from you in another room or up on a shelf, just somewhere it would be a bother retrieving. This concept is known as friction. What you want to do is increase the friction for distraction and decrease the friction for study as much as possible - people tend to do the things in front of them, the things that require the least effort.

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Active Recall and Spaced Repetition

Studying for exams is a long term process, and a lot of the time the subject you’re preparing for is content-heavy. Over time, you start to forget the topic you studied a few months ago and are not as good at it as you were when you first studied it. This brings me to technique numbers 2 and 3: 

Active Recall and Spaced Repetition.

I personally found this evidence-based revision strategy the most effective when studying for my exams. The names active recall and spaced repetition mean exactly what you think, returning back to what you learned some time back and doing so in a periodic fashion. Why is it an effective strategy? It's part of human nature to forget information over time. We can construct a graphical representation for whats called a forgetting curve.

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Lets say you learn a topic from biology to do with cell differentiation. One month after you learn the topic, your knowledge of it is not as great as when you first learned it. Now, the forgetting curve depicts an exponential decay of knowledge over time, and when you recall a topic you did some time back, your rate of ‘forgetting’ is much slower. So how I suggest approaching this method is:

1. Learn the topic

2. Recall that topic 1 week after learning it

3. 2 weeks after that, recall the topic again

4. Do it again 1 month later

5. Finally recall the topic every 3 months from then on

Doing this sets a solid foundation and increases your knowledge of a topic, it sticks better and forgetting it would take much longer. Below I’ve listed some studies you might find interesting based around this concept of active recall and retention of knowledge:

Study #1 - Spitzer 1939

Study #2 - Karpicke and Blunt 2011

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Practice Papers

So far we have talked about ways of beating procrastination and ways of remembering things. Now we will talk a bit about practice papers, in my opinion, the best determiner for progress. Doing a past or a practice paper every so often helps in maintaining stress levels when the real thing comes to pass. I would recommend doing past papers either in the morning or the afternoon since that’s around the time your real exams would be. Maintaining stress levels before exams is vital because when under pressure, you are vulnerable to losing simple marks which can make a big difference to your final grade. Also, as I mentioned, past papers are the best determiner of progress.

The satisfying part of doing work is maintaining progress checks. If you happen to get better marks over time it may not seem as apparent, but having your progress stored somewhere can show how much progress you have really made. Having that visual cue can have you wanting to do more since the work you’re putting in seems to be paying off. Do not fall into the trap of recording your progress every day, do it every week or month instead. Your progress is not going to be an upwards linear growth, instead its a subtle increase and decrease with an overall upwards growth so don’t falter!

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Flashcards and Videos

Many people like to use Flashcards for their revision. Personally it isn’t something I liked since I didn’t find it helping my grades. However, for many people I know, they really like using it and it did help their grades. They would come to school, have a deck of flashcards and have a friend test their knowledge. A point I want to make very clear, Not every method will work for you, it's something you have to figure out. Using a combination of methods that yield the best results is what you’re looking for. For example, I found watching videos, reading the textbook and doing lots of questions worked best for me.

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These are some of my top tips for exam success. If you want more advice or have any questions, message us on Discord or on Instagram @afgstudentunion.

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